Three favourites for a Monument

They were already at the front in Milan-Sanremo, won by Mathieu van der Poel. They continued the fight on the E3 GP where Wout Van Aert beat Van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar in the sprint. These three riders will again be the big favourites at the start in Bruges on Sunday. Difficult to decide between the "Big Three". Last year, in the absence of Van Aert covidé, Pogacar was the strongest but finished only fourth, beaten in the sprint by a cunning Van der Poel and a duo of returnees, Dylan van Baarle and Valentin Madouas. Van Aert is at least as strong as his Dutch rival in the sprint, while Pogacar had better sow the two strong guys if he wants to have a chance of winning.

Van der Poel for history

Winner in 2020 and 2022, the grandson of Raymond Poulidor can, at only 28 years old, become the seventh rider in history to win the "Ronde" three times after Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzo Magni, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. "Serene" after his victory in Sanremo, he has an exceptional record in the Tour of Flanders since he finished 2nd and 4th in his other two participations. To prepare for the race, he went to Spain this week for a few long training outings under the sun and some ground work that he hopes will also serve him well at Paris-Roubaix the following Sunday. Pogacar will also ride for history. If successful, the Slovenian would imitate Frenchman Louison Bobet and Belgian Eddy Merckx, the only two to have won both the Tour de France and the "Ronde".

Nineteen mountains, the same passion

The organizers and the Flemish media are once again expecting more than a million spectators along the 273.4 kilometers of the route, including 40,000, the equivalent of a football stadium, in Paterberg alone, the ultimate justice of the peace. Born in 1907, the Ronde triggers an unparalleled passion every year. Its particularity are its "bergs", that is to say mountains often narrow, paved and very steep. Nineteen are on the program this year. The most mythical are the Taaienberg, the Koppenberg, with a passage at 22%, the Old Quaremont, 2,200 meters long, and the Paterberg, 360 terrible meters at 13% average. The repetition of the climbs and the importance of the placement at their foot make the race as demanding as it is nervous.

Belgian Jumbo-Visma rider Wout Van Aert in training for the Tour of Flanders, March 30, 2023 © DIRK WAEM / BELGA / AFP

The Jumbo-Visma for a full carton

Like Jonas Vingegaard at the Tour de France last summer, Wout Van Aert has an advantage over his main competitors: his Jumbo-Visma team, which has become by far the most dominant on the grid. It's simple: this year, the Dutch hornets won the five cobbled classics contested so far: Het Nieuswlad (Dylan van Baarle), Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (Tiesj Benoot), the GP E3 (Wout Van Aert), Ghent-Wevelgem (Christophe Laporte) and Through Flanders (Christophe Laporte). There remain the two most important: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. On Sunday, Van Aert will be able to count on Benoot and Laporte to escort him and wring out the competition but also play their own card, depending on the circumstances. Small downside: the absence of Van Baarle, winner of the last Paris-Roubaix, insufficiently recovered from his crash on the E3.

French Jumbo-Visma rider Christophe Laporte during his victory in the race Through Flanders, March 29, 2023 in Waregem (Belgium) © JASPER JACOBS / BELGA / AFP

Several contenders, including French

A slew of outsiders hope to take advantage of a racing incident or the marking of the "Big Three" to create a surprise. Among them are strong riders like Switzerland's Stefan Küng, versatile sprinters like Denmark's Mads Pedersen, fit men like American Nelsen Powless, outfielders like Britain's Tom Pidcock and Slovenia's Matej Mohoric, and also some French. Starting with Christophe Laporte, dazzling at the moment even if he will first be at the service of Van Aert and that the mountains may be a little too hard for his profile. Julian Alaphilippe is looking forward to making a splash on an event he loves. As for Valentin Madouas, third last year, he dreams of becoming the fourth Frenchman to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen, his favourite race.

© 2023 AFP